By Patricia Lee Sharpe
The CPI(M)—that’s, briefly, the Communist Party—had ruled West Bengal for more than three decades, having solidified its base in the rural areas by credible land reform. Although the middle classes in Kolkata, the capital of the state, had gradually shifted rightward, the primary beneficiary wasn’t the nationally-entrenched Indian National Congress, but an upstart party, the Trinamool Congress, led, as many of India’s regional parties are, by a woman. That’s the feisty little Mamata Banerjee, once a rising young star in the iconic Indian National Congress itself.
During the election that took place recently, Trinamool won more than 60% of the seats in the state legislature. That makes Mamata West Bengal’s Chief Minister. Although her impressive victory permits her to form a single party government, the interesting news is that she has invited the Congress party (and some really tiny parties) to join her government. This is an intriguing development. Mamata is a tough talking, hard fighter. With the votes she got, she has every right to lord it over her former allies as well as the CPI(M).
Meanwhile, the really big question is: how did the once solidly entrenched CPI(M) come to lose so badly? Here are some key explanatory words. Actually they are place names: Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh.
Singur: West Bengal’s economy needs reinvigoration and modernization. There’s already a mini Silicon Valley centered in the Salt Lake area of Kolkata, but the manufacturing sector was more or less mid 20th century stuff and declining, at that. Thus, some fifteen years ago, when the Tata Group indicated they’d be happy to produce the super-affordable Nano in West Bengal, the CPI(M) decided that auto manufacturing might indeed help to revitalize the state economy.
And it might have, had the CPI(M) government gone about the land acquisition process more wisely. That didn’t happen. The core of the difficulty was this: land was needed, but there was little or no excess, unused, unclaimed land in West Bengal. Certainly not in Singur along the Houghly River south Kolkata. Farmers would have to be uprooted. This is always painful. It is especially painful when the land has been in the family for generations, when decent alternate employment is almost nonexistent and when the compensation offered is minuscule or sometimes worse. Such was the case when the CPI(M) government invoked the right of eminent domain to evict unwilling land owners—and here’s the legal rub, not for truly public purposes, but in support of private enterprise, however nobly intended. Tata actually got construction of the plant under way, but continued protests and agitations, to say nothing of the suicide of a local farmer, eventually prompted the company to pull out of West Bengal. The Nano was produced in Gujarat instead.
Nandigram: In this case, the land-snatch scenario involved Indonesian investors planning to manufacture chemicals in Midnapore District. As in Singur, the project never came to fruition, but here the final act was more gruesome. The police fired on protestors. Some 14 people were killed. Needless to say, the CPI(M)’s long-standing popularity in Midnapore tanked. In addition, the incident alienated many of the left-leaning urban intellectuals who had been a bastion of the Communist vote bank throughout West Bengal.
To sum it up, when the CPI9M) faltered, Trinamool was on the spot, pointing fingering of blam and asserting that its leader would do a better job in every way.
Lalgarh: The Trimamool Congress was able to capitalize on CPI(M) follies even in areas of Maoist influence. Now, the Maoists and the Moscow-oriented CPI(M) may have their long-term recondite intermural differences as to strategy and tactics, but their goals could once have been called mutually collective. And both, presumably, supported the aspirations of tribals trying to defend their lands against exploitation from greedy outsiders. However, Marxist or not, a ruling party has to be responsible for law and order. And here, once again, is where the CPI(M) got in trouble. Result: eight dead, 20 injured. As the Economic Times described it:
Lalgarh turned red again on Friday. Eight persons of Netai village were gunned down allegedly by harmads (hired killers), following a dispute between local CPM leaders and the villagers over providing arms training to the local youths for combating the Maoists. The death toll is likely to rise as twenty persons have received bullet injuries and are undergoing treatment in local hospitals. Four are learnt to be critical.
Police sources said that the harmads had set up a camp near the local CPM leader Rathin Dandapat's house at Netai village. On Friday morning, these harmads sprayed bullets on the villagers from their automatic weapons. Some local CPM leaders had been insisting that the local youths take arms training at the harmads camp to fight the Maoists.
Friday's incident will certainly lend the ammo to Mamata Banerjee to establish her claim about existence of harmad camps at Lalgarh and Jangalmahal. Recently, the Union home minister P Chidambaram had shot off a letter to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee saying that harmad camps had come up at the houses of local CPM leaders and CPM party offices in Jangalmahal. Bhattacharjee had objected strongly to Chidambaram's views. But, Friday's incident at Lalgarh will certainly put the chief minister in a fix in denying involvement of armed activists at Jangalmahal.
How does one sum up the reasons for the triumph of an upstart party over a well-entrenched, old line party? Dogged hard work by the challenging party. Complacency by the entrenched party. Plus this: the CPI(M) leadership was, to put it mildly, badly superannuated and out of touch, even as it tried desperately to make ill-contrived alliances with investors who might have provided much needed jobs.
In the past the Trinamool Congress has made common cause and electoral alliances with the Indian National Congress in West Bengal. That will probably continue, with this rather important change. Mamata Banerjee is likely to drive a much harder bargain with New Delhi now that she is in control of the state government.
This is the last of three pieces on current Indian politics resulting from my recent month in Kolkata. The others were: "The Troubles in Them Thar Hills: The Maoist Threat in Eastern India" and "Playing the China Card in India." For this piece I wish to acknowledge the insights of Nilanjan Hadjra of the Bengal Post.